LESS THAN FIVE MINUTES into the opening ceremony of the National Organization for Women's 40th Anniversary Con ference here, New York state NOW president Marcia Pappas announces that we are present at a "herstoric event." They really do talk like that.
NOW, of course, is the nation's largest feminist organization. Founded in 1966, it reached the apex of its visibility and influence in the late 1970s and early '80s, when it went all out for the Equal Rights Amendment--and lost to Phyllis Schlafly's conservative legions. Today, weakened and marginalized, it staggers on, attempting to recapture the old fire. But the anniversary conference, held July 21-23, has attracted just 712 participants, a mere 0.1 percent of the over 500,000 contributing members NOW's website claims.
(Not that the group's official figures are necessarily reliable. At two different sessions here, Muriel Fox, a NOW founder and longtime communications guru, admitted that she fudged the early numbers: She didn't want the press to know how small NOW really was, so she'd heavily inflate the membership and number of chapters in her press releases. Sometimes she'd brush off queries with a breezy claim of "millions" of chapters.)
The whole gathering, moreover, has a distinctly retro air. Everyone I talk to seems to be a sixtysomething women's studies professor or a fiftysomething social worker named Fran. The T-shirts in evidence everywhere say things like "Doing My Part to Piss Off the Religious Right," "Born-Again Pagan," and "Thelma and Louise Finishing School" (remember the 1991 movie about the housewife and coffee shop waitress who kill an attempted rapist, then take off on the lam, and on a crime spree, in a 1966 convertible?).
The highest-ranking politician to address the conference is New York Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney--a true "shero," according to NOW president Kim Gandy. And the biggest celebrity, received with much excitement, is Tyne Daly, who played Lacey on Cagney and Lacey, a show that's been off the air for nearly twenty years.
Where are the Hollywood starlets who line up to perform in the Vagina Monologues or stump for Hillary Clinton? For that matter, where is Hillary Clinton? Senator Clinton, after all, is the first serious female presidential contender in history, and the conference is in her home state at a time when she's up for reelection, yet her name is hardly mentioned.
Many of the breakout sessions, which make up most of the conference, are devoted to policy issues--education, abortion, immigration, and so on. But the presenters are usually NOW employees or NOW chapter chairs, either unqualified to speak on their given issues or vastly unprepared (like the discussion leader who informs us she'll be speaking "off the cuff"). The workshop titles display the trademark radical-feminist crudeness ("It's My Cleavage so Sue Me! Fashion and Feminism"), tedium ("Immigration is a Feminist Issue"), and overkill ("The War on Contraception"), not to say delusion ("Educational Equality Under Attack! Learn How to Protect Your Rights").
Instead of delving into policy analysis, the workshops emphasize emotion, through small-group conversation and "pair-share" exercises. The conference guidelines encourage attendees to "speak in 'I' terms, e.g., 'I think . . . ,' 'I feel . . . ,' and 'I believe . . . '" Ideas, as a result, are few and far between.
For the most part, what the participants feel like doing is reliving past glories. The favorite subject is the Equal Rights Amendment, which went down to defeat in 1982. Speakers from Tyne Daly to a screaming Eleanor Smeal (twice president of NOW, in 1977-'82 and 1985-'87) call for the return of the ERA, to rabid applause from an audience that includes many veterans of the fight a quarter-century ago. Even at the Youth Feminist Summit on the first day of the conference, it's the old guard that dominates the podium and the floor.
In addition to the talk, there is genuine celebration. Feminist folk artist Sandy Rapp ("Dylanesque," according to the program) provides musical entertainment at the birthday party on Saturday night. This evolves into a giant sing-along complete with clapping, dancing, and chanting lyrics like "Get your laws off me / I'm not your property" and the catchy refrain "We were marching with Molly Yard" (president of NOW from 1987-'91). For one brief, shining moment, the revolution lives.
But fewer than half of the attendees stick around to close out the conference, and virtually none under the age of forty are visible in its last hours. In a twist straight out of a bad Lifetime coming-of-age drama, the radio on the shuttle back to the airport is blasting Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley's Dirty Dancing theme song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life"--a sentiment about as true to life for this attendee as Eleanor Smeal's impassioned proclamation to the sisterhood, still ringing in my ears: "The best is yet to come!"
Allison Kasic is director of campus programs at the Independent Women's Forum.